Cone overloads snapping firs, creating alerts

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A grand fir is bent over due to an excessive cone load on top — a situation caused by a combination of last year’s drought and the November windstorm that stressed trees, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

COEUR d'ALENE — A different type of danger has arrived in North Idaho forests this summer — grand fir trees snapping because of big cone loads at the top.

The phenomenon, believed by U.S. Forest Service officials to have been created by the weather extremes of last summer's drought and the November windstorm stressed trees, has prompted a public safety warning from the agency.

"We are concerned that these large mass of cones and limbs can cause serious injury or death and so we wish to remind forest visitors to be alert in the forest and make sure they are aware what’s going on in the trees above them," said Shoshana Cooper, public affairs officer with the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

Cooper said the Forest Service has received many reports from forest visitors about the toppling tree tops.

"They are wondering what is causing this," she said. "The drought followed by the windstorm damaged the root system and stressed trees. That caused the heavy cone production."

Cooper said if people are in a designated camping area and see a potentially hazardous tree that’s either dead or leaning, they should notify the applicable ranger district office.

"The districts conduct hazard tree surveys before sites open in late spring," but most of the cone overload concern came after the surveys, Cooper said.

Meanwhile, Tuesday night's lightning storm caused just one forest fire in the area — on the west side of Canfield Mountain. It was contained to a tenth of an acre on Wednesday.

"That was the column of smoke people could see," Cooper said.

Cooper said rain during the storm, along with relatively green conditions in the forest, likely prevented more fires from starting.

She said fire danger in North Idaho is at Level 1. The Northern Rockies Region is at Level 2 and nationally the fire danger is increasing and at Level 3. Level 5 is the highest danger — a condition that was reached in North Idaho last year.

"This has been a very average fire season for us," Cooper said.

Shane O'Shea of the Idaho Department of Lands said with last year's fire danger still in the back of people's minds, the public has been vigilant in the forests about safety this year.

Josh Jurgensen, Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District recreation staff officer, assesses tree damage at the Kit Price Campground on the Coeur d’Alene River.

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